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Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa Lafaye

Under a Dark Summer Sky

by Vanessa Lafaye

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I want to thank NetGalley for the advanced reader's copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

"The Help meets The Perfect Storm in this debut novel set in 1935 in the broiling Florida Keys."

That pretty much tells it; except this story is based on real facts and events and adds a piece of history about the war veterans constructing a bridge.

As in The Help, Under A Dark Summer Sky has entrenched racism with a wide cast of black and white characters. Rural Florida, especially the Keys, were linked to mainland US by ferry or railroad and had little exposure to life and culture other than their own. The Conks, the white class, were originally immigrants from the British ruled Bahaman Islands and brought with them the need for a feudal class, which in this instance, was filled by the "freed" slaves. Culturally, very little had changed, even though slavery had been abolished. At this time, 1935, legislation at the state level continued to use Jim Crow laws to enforce legal segregation. The blacks in subservient roles had no opportunity to advance their status.

Southern US States, and in this instance the fictional Heron Key, were scalded and steamed daily and the seeds of violent storms were always present. With little forecasting abilities, island residents had to rely on memories of past storms to prepare for future events. There was no way that anyone could have foreseen the devastation and loss of life to in 1935 to the actual Key island and in the novel, Heron Key, and prepared for it. And with limited escape routes, there was no way to evacuate the island. (For those interested about the strongest Cat-5 storm to ever strike the US read the Sun-Sentinel article. www.sun-sentinel.com/new/sfl-1935-hurricane-story.html.)

The third major story line in Under A Dark Summer Sky is based on actual events. A federal work camp filled with disgruntled war veterans had arrived by train and were housed in squalid conditions throughout the south including Heron Key. This rowdy fractious group of multicultural veterans had been promised financial bonuses for war service. The economic recovery from the Great Depression was not complete and the soldiers were unable to collect; thousands protested. An infrastructure program by the federal government was devised as a way to defuse the unrest and to provide a subsistence income. Those on Heron Key were conscripted to build a bridge while living in conditions not unlike the filthy trenches they used in France during the war.

As the storm barreled toward them from the ocean, the three sub-sets of society on Heron Key, were caught in a brewing racial and class-based storm of their own making. On one horrific day, everyone on Heron Key was treated equally in the eye of the 1935 hurricane.
( )
  Itzey | Jan 23, 2016 |
What started out as a remarkable story of racial tension and civil rights, ended too abruptly. Missy has waited 18 years for Henry's return from the war, but when he finally arrives, he is a much changed man. He refuses to stay with his family but prefers to stay with the other veterans who are working on a bridge in deplorable conditions. A Fourth of July picnic is planned where racial tensions and bad feelings about the veterans mount. A white woman is brutally attacked on her way home and Henry becomes a prime suspect. A lot of good characters and plots are "blown away" by the arrival of a hurricane. All of the built up suspense evaporates and we are left with a very ineffective epilogue. ( )
  creighley | Nov 25, 2015 |

**Please be aware that my review contains what might be considered spoilers**

[b:Under a Dark Summer Sky|24796095|Under a Dark Summer Sky|Vanessa Lafaye|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1422843614s/24796095.jpg|42761985] a debut novel by author [a:Vanessa Lafaye|4979689|Vanessa Lafaye|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1435069708p2/4979689.jpg], is an intense and enthralling piece of historical fiction.

Lafaye, who was born in Tallahassee and grew up in Tampa, has created a great story that blends the history of a major natural disaster, a love story and a violent (but somehow underwhelming) crime mystery.

This is a fictionalized novel set in Florida during the summer of 1935 as one of the most intense and devastating hurricanes in US history made landfall, literally erasing a good portion of the upper Florida Keys from the map.

According to an article in the Sun Sentinel "The storm destroyed Henry Flagler's railroad that connected Key West to the mainland and is said to have cleared every tree and every building off Matecumbe Key".

Although the author chose to set the story in the summer of 1935, the hurricane actually hit Islamorada (fictionalized as Heron Key in the novel) the same year on Labor Day weekend.

This category 5 storm known as the "1935 Labor Day hurricane", never got an official name since the National Hurricane Center (NHC) only started the practice of formally naming storms in 1953 (up until 1979 all the storms had female names, since then male and female names are used interchangeably).

Compare to other major hurricanes, the financial impact of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane was relatively small ($6 million dollars), but the lost of lives was staggering, in total more than 400 people lost their lives during this horrific natural disaster.

To me one of the strengths of this novel is how accurate the author highlights the tensions that arise when disasters strike and resources are limited. These types of events tend to reveal the best and worst of human nature.

Henry Flagler’s railroad was destroyed during the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. When you travel to The Florida Keys you can see what remains of the old Bridge.

The first scene of [b:Under a Dark Summer Sky|24796095|Under a Dark Summer Sky|Vanessa Lafaye|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1422843614s/24796095.jpg|42761985], in which an alligator tries to take a baby away from the family's backyard to have him for lunch, gives you a sense as to how intense and dramatic this novel is going to be.

As the story begins, it's the summer of 1935, Franklin Roosevelt is president, the nation is still experiencing the ravaging effects of the Depression as well as the overwhelming aftermath of World War I. Although racial tensions have taken a backseat, the Jim Crow laws are alive and well and remain a very present reality in the lives of most African Americans.

The residents of Heron Key are not happy when a group of World War I veterans come to live in their midst. After coming back from the war, many veterans couldn't find jobs and Congress and the Federal Government have failed to deliver a bonus that had been promised to the return soldiers.

In an effort to control the political backlash that came as a result, the Roosevelt administration decides to move veterans as far away from Washington as possible. The government creates public works projects and offers jobs to over 200 dissapointed and unruly war veterans, black and white, that end up living in Heron Key.

By Depression-Era standards, the folks of Heron Key seem to have escaped the worst of the economic woes most of the country is facing, but life is certainly not easy, especially for its African American citizens.

Still the town enjoys a relatively pleasant and agreeable lifestyle, like it was typical in many places during this pre-civil rights era, everybody knows their place. Both black and white residents are very aware where social lines are drawn and are careful not to cross them.

But the veteran's presence disrupts this fragile balance between its residents and we see how prejudices and old conflicts bubble to the surface.

The novels introduces a wide and interesting cast of characters. I found it a little difficult to keep track of all the names, particularly during the first chapters of the novel. The narrative jumps pretty fast from one character to another, which was to me one of the shortcomings of this book.

Henry Roberts, is probably the most complex and interesting character. He is an African American war veteran and a native of Heron Key. After living in France during the war and experiencing how it felt to live in a racially desegregated society (that included having a white French lover), he returns to America, but he's trying to find his place and purpose and struggles with the realities of racial inequality in his home country.

Nelson and Hilda Kincaid are the richest but very unhappy white couple in town.

Missy Douglas, is a sweet and noble African-American who works as the nanny for the Kincaids. Missy has harbored feelings for Henry since she was a young girl. When he returns to Heron Key, she's hopeful that they can start things where the left them 17 years ago.

Dwayne Campbell is the town sheriff, his marriage is in ruins since his wife gave birth to a baby of mixed race; and Selma, Henry’s sister has the ability to invoke supernatural forces (yes there's a little touch of magical realism on the book but the author keeps this to a minimum so don't let that turn you off if that not your thing).

Three generations after the end of slavery, the town's Fourth of July barbecue remains a segregated event. Still this is the annual party everybody in Heron Key looks forward to attend.

Initially things appear to be going well but the harmony doesn't last long. Tensions between black and white residents boil over after the vets, some of whom have drank too much, start disrupting the party.

Later on that night when Hilda is found almost beaten to death, suspicions immediately land on Henry despite the lack of any physical evidence and talks of a lynching begin circulating.

The story then follows the investigation to solve the mystery of who attacked Hilda and what what was the motivation behind the attack.

In the meantime, the authorities of Heron Key have been getting regular updates from the local weatherman about a potential dangerous storm that is rapidly approaching the Florida straits.

Predicting the weather has always being an inexact science, but it was really fascinating to learn how primitive the science of meteorological forecasting was in those days and how little technology was available to the people involved in making hurricane predictions.

Once the hurricane makes landfall and begins wreaking havoc on the island, it becomes a character itself.
Lafaye deftly describes the storm's intensity, unpredictability and it's determination to destroy everything that comes on its path.

Be prepared to read some very detailed and harrowing passages describing the loss of human life and treasure. By one account, the force of the winds was such that "People caught in the open were blasted by sand with such force that it stripped away their clothing".

I had known about this real life event in Florida's history before, but reading it in the context of this dramatic novel and learning how badly these veterans were treated put it a different light for me. According to official records, out of the 400 plus victims of the hurricane, 259 were WWI veterans. It's inexcusable that these vets were placed in inadequate tent-like housing, under Florida's scorching summer temperatures right in the middle of hurricane season.

There were plans to send a train from Miami to rescue the veterans from the storm, but a mix of apathy, government bureaucracy and a lack of a reliable chain of command doomed the mission from the beginning. By the time the train arrived in the Keys, it was too late and many died on board when it was swept of its tracks by the storm surge.

The book includes an addendum with the "Author's Note" which I very much appreciated. It provides fascinating details about the historical and political context of the story. The author mentions that Ernest Hemingway who was a resident of Key West at the time, was one of the first to arrive in Islamorada after the storm had passed.

A picture of the relief train that was sent to rescue WWI veterans after it was swept by the storm surge.

Following his visit, Hemingway wrote a scathing magazine article denouncing the failed government rescue efforts titled "Who Murdered The Vets?.

Hemingway's anger is very palpable when you read his letter, here's a paragraph:

"It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; They made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives".

The novel still manages to end on a solemn but hopeful note when the survivors gather to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the storm and remember those that were lost, but are also grateful to be alive and make plans for their future.

[b:Under a Dark Summer Sky|24796095|Under a Dark Summer Sky|Vanessa Lafaye|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1422843614s/24796095.jpg|42761985] with its blend of history, mystery and a touch of romance makes for a very nice summer read.

( )
  irisper012106 | Nov 1, 2015 |
From the first chapter, this novel is steeped in its setting. Florida, 1935. Racial divides, love [extra-marital and long lost], the US mistreatment of its Great War veterans, and the threat of the elements dominate this tale of Heron Key. Vanessa Lafaye is a debut novelist but she handles her explosive material with assurance, taking time to build the story as the town prepares for the annual beach barbeque on Independence Day. With the weather reports showing a hurricane approaching, tensions build between the townsfolk and the war veterans camped nearby in cockroach-infested mouldy conditions.
Lafayae took her inspiration from two real events, the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935, and the appalling way the US Government treated its war veterans. Heron Key is fictional as are the characters, but some of the things which happen during the hurricane are based on real-life reports. This is a wonderful meld of fiction and fact, handled by skilled storyteller. Lafaye handles the suspense as if she has been telling stories like this all her life.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/ ( )
  Sandradan1 | Oct 30, 2015 |
Henry Roberts is a dark skinned WWI veteran. He has been wandering aimlessly through the U.S. with some of his men picking up work where they can for years. He finds himself in Heron Keys working on the new bridge. They live in the veteran's camp, a filthy site with temporary frame dwellings. Henry grew up in this area, so he eventually sees the people that have been waiting for him for 18 years.

Missy grew up in Heron Keys and knows no other life apart from living with her Mama and working for the wealthy white Kincaid family. Her world is totally shaken up by Henry's return.

It's storm season in Florida and just as tensions in the community reach a peak, a massive hurricane is heading their way. The people think they are prepared but they have no idea how bad this is going to get.

This seems to be a well researched book. I appreciated the author's note at the beginning, highlighting where she has taken fictional licence in the story. The description of the racial tensions in the community are portrayed through the interactions of the various characters in a very believable way. All the hidden secrets of a small community are revealed.

Another good book. ( )
  Roro8 | Sep 10, 2015 |
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